"One Summer: America, 1927"

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Best-selling author Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, 1998), joins us to discuss his newest book, One Summer: America, 1927. Read an excerpt from the book below.


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On a warm spring evening just before Easter 1927, people who lived in tall buildings in New York were given pause when wooden scaffolding around the tower of the brand-new Sherry-Netherland Apartment Hotel caught fire and it became evident that the city’s firemen lacked any means to get water to such a height.

Crowds flocked to Fifth Avenue to watch the blaze, the biggest the city had seen in years. At thirty-eight stories, the Sherry-Netherland was the tallest residential building ever erected, and the scaffolding – put there to facilitate the final stages of construction – covered the top fifteen stories, providing enough wood to make a giant blaze around its summit. From a distance, the building looked rather like a just-struck match. The flames were visible twenty miles away. Up close, the scene was much more dramatic. Sections of burning scaffolding up to fifty feet long fell from a height of five hundred feet and crashed in clattering showers of sparks in the streets below, to the gleeful cries of the spectators and the peril of toiling firemen. Burning embers dropped onto the roofs of neighboring buildings, setting four of them alight. Firemen trained their hoses on the Sherry-Netherland building, but it was a token gesture since their streams could not rise above the third or fourth story. Fortunately, because the building was unfinished it was unoccupied.

People in 1920s America were unusually drawn to spectacle and by 10 pm the crowd had grown to an estimated hundred thousand people – an enormous gathering for a spontaneous event. Seven hundred policemen had to be brought in to keep order. Some wealthy observers, deflected from their evening revels, took rooms in the Plaza Hotel across the street and held impromptu “fire room parties,” according to the New York Times. Mayor Jimmy Walker turned up to have a look and got soaked when he wandered into the path of a hose. A moment later a flaming ten-foot-long plank crashed onto the pavement near him and he accepted advice to withdraw. The fire did extensive damage to the upper reaches of the building, but luckily did not spread downwards and burned itself out about midnight.


The flames and smoke provided some welcome diversion to two men, Clarence Chamberlin and Bert Acosta, who had been flying in circles in a small plane above Roosevelt Field on Long Island since 9:30 that morning. They were doing so in an attempt to break the world endurance record set two years earlier by two French aviators. This was partly a matter of national honor -- America, birthplace of aviation, was now hopelessly behind even the smallest European nations – and partly to confirm that planes could stay up long enough to make really long flights.

The trick of the exercise, Chamberlin explained afterwards, was to squeeze maximum mileage out of the plane by adjusting the throttle and fuel mixture to the point where the plane was just able to remain airborne -- keeping it “on starvation rations,” as Chamberlin put it. When he and Acosta finally glided back to earth, shortly before one o’clock in the afternoon of their third day aloft, they were essentially flying on vapor. They had been continuously airborne for 51 hours, 11 minutes and 25 seconds, an advance of nearly six hours on the existing record.

They emerged grinning from their plane to the approving roar of a large crowd. (People really did gather in enormous numbers for almost any event in the 1920s.) The two triumphant pilots were tired and stiff -- and very thirsty. It turned out that one of their ground crew, in a moment of excited distraction, had left their canteens filled with soapy water, so they had had nothing to drink for two days. Otherwise the flight was a great success -- great enough to be the main story in the New York Times on Good Friday, April 15. Across three columns the headline declared:


They had flown 4,100 miles -- 500 miles more than the distance from New York to Paris. Just as significantly, they had managed to get airborne with 375 gallons of fuel, an enormous load for the time, and had used up just 1,200 feet of runway to do so. All this was extremely encouraging for those who wished to fly the Atlantic, and in the spring of 1927 there were many, like Chamberlin and Acosta, who most assuredly did.


Bill Bryson; image credit: Bath & North East Somerset Council UK

By a curiously ironic twist, the event that left America far behind the rest of the world in aviation was the very one that assured its dominance in so many other spheres: the First World War.

Before 1914, airplanes barely featured in military thinking. The French air corps, with three dozen planes, was larger than all the other air forces in the world put together. Germany, Britain, Italy, Russia, Japan, and Austria all had no more than four planes in their fleets; the United States had just two. But with the outbreak of fighting, military commanders quickly saw how useful planes could be -- for monitoring enemy troop movements, for directing artillery fire, and above all for providing a new direction and manner in which to kill people.

In the early days, bombs often were nothing more than wine bottles filled with gasoline or kerosene, with a simple detonator attached, though a few pilots threw hand grenades and some for a time dropped specially made darts called flechettes which could pierce a helmet or otherwise bring pain and consternation to those in the trenches below. As always where killing is involved, technological progress was swift, and by 1918 aerial bombs of up to 2,200 pounds were being dropped. Germany alone rained down a million individual bombs, some 27,000 tons of explosives, in the course of the war. Bombing was not terribly accurate – a bomb dropped from ten thousand feet rarely hit its target and often missed by half a mile or more – but the psychological effect, wherever a large bomb fell, was considerable.

Heavy bomb loads required planes of ever greater size and power, which in turn spurred the development of swifter, nimbler fighter craft to defend or attack them, which in further turn produced the celebrated dogfights that fired the imaginations of schoolboys and set the tone for aviation for a generation to come. The air war produced an insatiable need for planes. In four years, the four main combatant nations spent $1 billion -- a staggering sum, nearly all borrowed from America -- on their air fleets. From almost nothing, France in four years built up an aircraft industry that employed nearly 200,000 people and produced some 70,000 planes. Britain built 55,000 planes, Germany 48,000, and Italy 20,000 -- quite an advance bearing in mind that only a few years earlier the entire world aviation industry consisted of two brothers in a bicycle shop in Ohio.

Up to 1914, the total number of people in the world who had been killed in airplanes was about a hundred. Now men died in their thousands. By the spring of 1917, the life expectancy of a British pilot was put at eight days. Altogether between 30,000 and 40,000 flyers were killed or injured to the point of incapacity in four years. Training was not a great deal safer than combat. At least 15,000 men were killed or invalided in accidents in flight schools. American flyers were particularly disadvantaged. When the United States entered the war, in April 1917, not a single American military official had ever even seen a fighter aircraft, much less commanded one. When the explorer Hiram Bingham, discoverer of Machu Picchu but now a middle-aged professor at Yale, offered himself as an instructor, the army made him a lieutenant-colonel and put him in charge of the whole training program, not because he had useful experience – he didn’t – but simply because he knew how to fly a plane. Many new pilots were taught by instructors who had only just been taught themselves. America now made a huge, but ultimately futile, effort to catch up in aviation; Congress appropriated $600 million to build an air force. As Bingham wrote in his memoirs, “When we entered the war, the Air Service had two small flying fields, 48 officers, 1330 men, and 225 planes, not one of which was fit to fly over the lines. In the course of a year and a half, this Air Service grew to 50 flying fields, 20,500 officers, 175,000 men and 17,000 planes.” Unfortunately, almost none of those 17,000 planes reached Europe because nearly all available shipping was needed for troops. So American airmen, when they got to the front, mostly flew in borrowed, patched-up planes provided by the Allies, leaving them in the position of being sent into the most dangerous form of combat in modern times with next to no training in generally second-rate surplus planes against vastly more experienced enemies. Yet at no point was there a shortage of volunteer pilots on any side. The ability to climb to 13,000 feet, to fly at 130 miles an hour, to roll and dart and swoop through the air in deadly combat, was for many airmen thrilling to the point of addiction. The romance and glamour of it can scarcely be imagined now. Pilots were the most heroic figures of the age.

Then the war ended, and planes and aviators both were suddenly, largely worthless. America terminated $100 million of aircraft orders at a stroke, and essentially lost all official interest in flying. Other nations scaled back nearly as severely. For aviators who wished to remain airborne, the options were stark and few. Many, lacking anything better to do, engaged in stunts. In Paris, the Galeries Lafayette department store, in a moment of unconsidered folly, offered a prize of 25,000 francs to anyone who could land a plane on its roof. A more foolhardy challenge could hardly be imagined: the roof was just thirty yards long and bounded by a three-foot-high balustrade, which added several perilous degrees of steepness to any landing on it. A former war ace named Jules Védrine decided nonetheless to have a try. Védrine placed men on the roof to grab the wings of his plane as it came in. The men succeeded in keeping the plane from tumbling off the roof and onto the festive throngs in the Place de l’Opéra below, but only at the cost of directing it into a brick shed housing the store’s elevator mechanisms. The plane was smashed to splinters, but Védrine stepped from the wreckage unscathed, like a magician from an amazing trick. Such luck, however, couldn’t hold. Three months later he died in a crash while trying to fly, more conventionally, from Paris to Rome.

Védrine’s death in a French field illustrated two awkward facts about airplanes: for all their improvements in speed and manoeuvrability, they were still dangerous devices and not much good for distances. Just a month after his crash, the U.S. Navy unwittingly underscored the point when it sent three Curtiss flying boats on a hair-raisingly ill-conceived trip from Newfoundland to Portugal via the Azores. In readiness, the navy positioned sixty-six ships along the route to steam to the aid of any plane that got in trouble, which suggests that its own confidence in the exercise was perhaps less than total. It was as well that it took precautions. One of the planes ditched in the sea and had to be rescued before it even got to Newfoundland. The other two planes splashed down prematurely during the race itself and had to be towed to the Azores; one of those sank en route. Of the three planes that set out, only one made it to Portugal, and that took eleven days. Had the purpose of the exercise been to show how unready for ocean flights airplanes were, it could not have been more successful.

ONE SUMMER by Bill Bryson. Copyright 2013 (c) 2013 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House.

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